The “Soviet” Church

Over at First ThingsSergei Chapnin describes how the hopeful revival of the Russian Orthodox Church in the 1990s has led to a “re-Sovietization” of the church, in part because the pernicious and debilitating debate between conservatives and progressives has made it way even to the vast expanses of Russia:

During the Soviet era, the persecuted Church had valued unity above all things. Church leaders maintained informal, often friendly, contacts with religious dissidents. By the mid–1990s, the situation changed. Conflict between liberals and conservatives became a defining feature of church life.

In the Communist Party, mainstream ideas were known as the “general line.” By demanding conformity with the general line, the Soviets suppressed dissent and maintained unity. Now, as the Church became a respected part of post-Soviet culture, many members turned their attention to managing and manipulating her influence. If the Church intended to set the spiritual and ideological agenda for the nation, these members thought, then she could not do without a general line. The “conservatives” were those who took it upon themselves to formulate this general line and determine who was in accord with it and who was not.

Thus the two camps solidified. The conservatives’ task, as they saw it, was to reestablish the social and political power of the Church. In liturgy and catechesis, they defended received practices. The “liberals,” by contrast, were those like Fr. Kochetkov, concerned with improving catechesis and promoting the role of liturgy in community life. To a degree that would have been unthinkable during the Soviet era, the two camps became mutually hostile. Church members who disagreed on theological or practical issues were now calling each other “enemies of the Church.” ­Designating themselves “defenders of the faith,” the conservatives ventured to criticize not only the laity and lower clergy, but the bishops themselves, charging them with “departures from Orthodoxy” and even, on occasion, heresy. Church Revival 1.0 fizzled.

According to Chapnin, the church has embraces a “Russian World” (Русский мир) which aims to unite all Orthodox Slavic people (Russians, Belursians, Ukrainians) under one great orthodox church and in one great state. In short, the church seeks a renewed Russian Empire.

In this 2.0 phase, the Church is circling back to Sovietism, promoting conformity and dreaming of imperial expansion. In one sense, these sympathies should be understood pragmatically, as a means of currying favor with state authorities. Nonetheless, there are genuine pro-Soviet sentiments within the Russian Church. Their presence is easily explained.

In its 1.0 phase, Church Revival failed to address its top priority: “churching” those who were attracted to Orthodoxy, which meant catechizing Russians and incorporating them into the Church. The mass baptisms of the 1990s left the newly baptized unprepared for life in the Church. The Church had welcomed the uncatechized, counting on a “natural” churching to take place later, as if Christian identity would come automatically. Bishop Panteleimon of Smolensk and Vyazma describes the result:

At the beginning of the 1990s, we saw a surge of people coming to the Church… . Not just coming, but swarming into it. Alas, not many stayed inside. The period of active attention to the life of the Church and so-called “churching” ended very quickly… . In my estimation, people who go to church every Sunday amount to one percent of the country’s population, or even less.

In most cases, the newly baptized Soviet people had no interest in metanoia, no desire to change. Of course, change did arrive. It was the new post-Soviet culture (which only too soon became neo-Soviet) that changed the Church, rather than the other way around. The result is a Sovietized Christianity.

It looks like the Orthodox church made an interesting mistake in relying to heavily on Russian culture — which had, at one time, been heavily Christian, but has become as secular and as modernist as any in the west — to do the work of Christianizing. Perhaps because they believed, mistakenly, that Christian is what someone would somehow automatically become if they lived in the right circumstances. It would be acquired from the air, or the water. Or somehow being a faithful Christian was merely in one’s genes, and once the restrictions of the Soviet state were removed, Christian living would simply and naturally appear.

Nothing could be farther from the truth, of course. To become Christian requires a great deal of purposeful and deliberate work, something the church in Christendom has forgotten because it could assume that a Christian culture would form Christian people. Maybe it does, but conservatives especially need to note that Christendom produced and embraced modernity and enlightenment in all its forms. So the Christian culture of Christendom was no defense against the deeply attractive heresies and idolatries of modernity.

Chaplin also describes how conservatism within orthodoxy has become, as it has in America, a hollow ideology, and not an honest expression of faith:

Over the last generation, the appeal of the Church to individuals and ­society has come down to tradition—the need to preserve it, the danger of neglecting it. These are legitimate concerns. But the newly baptized ex-Soviets of the last two decades have a rigid and impoverished understanding of “tradition,” which they understand as a set of rules and regulations: when to pray and what set of prayers to read, what not to eat and what else not to do during Lent, what to wear to church, and so on. For them, tradition is not a living tradition, and an understanding of tradition as a common and personal experience of life in Christ comes under suspicion as too “liberal.”

Beyond liturgy and piety, other traditions were revived: respect for the family, opposition to abortion, the banning of homosexual practice and propaganda. These measures are seen as asserting traditional Russian mores in opposition to the decadence of the West. They seem to add up to a healthy Christian conservatism. But this is rhetoric, not living tradition. The actual statistics in Russia are disastrous: 640,000 divorces to 1.2 million marriages in 2010; sixty-three abortions per hundred live births in 2011. The supposed revival of Russian morality is propaganda, not a genuine effort of social renewal. It is a way of elevating Russia over the allegedly more corrupt cultures of Western Europe and North ­America—a way of talking once again about East versus West, us versus them. The West is constructed as not just a political and economic enemy, but a spiritual one as well. This sort of thinking is the general line.

I see a great many similarities in this to what is happening with the church in the West, particularly the United States (Chapnin talks about liberals, but this essay suggests they are a marginal force in the Russian church). Too many conservatives in America would, I think, embrace some form of Americanized “Soviet” church (hearkening back to the glory days of 1958!) if it meant renewed social prestige and power.

That very church, however, was the cause of the current church’s problem. It did not know how to form followers of Jesus absent a culture generally supportive of a generic and nationalistic Christianity. It could form them to be good, patriotic American (or Soviet) citizens, but if our concern is the kingdom of God, if our concern is loving God, walking in his ways, and loving our neighbor as ourselves, then that good citizenship was irrelevant. In fact, good citizenship is worse than irrelevant — it is detrimental. We should take Paul seriously when he writes:

18 For many, of whom I have often told you and now tell you even with tears, walk as enemies of the cross of Christ. 19 Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things. 20 But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, 21 who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself. (Philippians 3:18-21 ESV)

If we are to be faithful followers of Christ, then, we have to look past the desire to be influential and meaningful, and instead do the hardest and most faithful work of all — teaching ourselves what it means to live as God’s people, and then living as God’s faithful called people, knowing which citizenship we hold really matters, in a world where virtually nothing will support or encourage us.

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